The UB’s women’s soccer team weren’t where they wanted to be at the end of last season.
The Bulls went 13-4-3 and lost to then-No. 1 seed Bowling Green in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament. Now, UB is currently at the top of the MAC at 12-1-4, with a 6-0-4 record in conference play. The Bulls were ranked as high as No. 31 in the nation in September, the highest ranking in program history.
They are the only MAC team ranked in the top 50, a spot they’ve held for six weeks. (Bowling Green is the next highest-ranked MAC team in the nation at 103.) The current Bulls squad is also riding a 14-game undefeated streak, tied for the best mark in program history.
Burke attributes that success partly to the team’s newest hire: a mindfulness coach.
“I don’t think it’s an accident the success that has followed after that,” Burke said, referring to bringing a mindfulness coach in this season. “We do everything we can as soccer coaches, but that’s something I thought someone with expertise could help with and it clearly has.”
Burke decided to bring on their mindfulness coach, Lucinda Snyder, after having conversations about mental health with some of his players.
Snyder has worked on techniques to help reduce stress which can help calm players down instead of letting the stress escalate, graduate defender Tess Ford said. She said that having Snyder has changed the energy within the team this season.
This season’s emphasis on mental health has also helped fifth-year goalkeeper Emily Kelly. Kelly’s position on the team comes with its own challenge: wildly varying levels of pressure. Some games require Kelly to make the game-winning save, and other times the Wilson, New York native is stuck with her thoughts, watching the action from between the goalposts.
When her team is attacking, Kelly will find herself practicing Snyder’s breathing exercises in order to stay focused and in the moment on the field. Snyder has also helped Kelly with visualization, another key component to help her stay on top of her game.
“She has cleared some things up that maybe in the past would have stuck with the team,” Kelly said. “She has been that missing piece. I think that has been really vital to the season.”
In August, the team headed down to Piscataway, New Jersey to face Rutgers, the No. 3 team in the country. The team went into the game knowing it would be no small task, but Snyder helped change their mindsets, reminding them that they were an “accomplished team” and had “every right to be on the same stage” as Rutgers.
UB did lose the game 1-2. But the Bulls were in the lead at the half, a feat Kelly partially attributes to Snyder.
And other than their game against Rutgers, the Bulls haven’t had another loss this season.
Kelly, who’s been with the Bulls for five seasons, has become one of the team’s standout players. She became the winningest goalkeeper in program history when she won her 40th game against Binghamton in August. She said she didn’t know she was close to breaking that record until the day she broke it. Since then, Kelly has recorded an additional 11 wins.
But Kelly is humble. She credits her success to her backline.
“I can’t really take any of the credit because Tess [Ford] does a lot of the heavy lifting,” Kelly said.
Ford has been playing alongside Kelly since club level, where they played for the WNY Flash ECNL in high school. Together, they have helped cultivate a strong backline for the Bulls. The team has maintained 11 shutouts and allowed only eight goals this season.
While the team has been good about saving goals, Burke says they are still struggling with taking advantage of goal scoring opportunities.
“We are having to really stress out a win as opposed to a couple gold cushions is where it should be from the chances we are creating,” Burke said.
The team has scored many of its goals in the second half. They have been outshooting their opponents 274-131. While the Bulls have had ample opportunities, the amount of goals they’ve been scoring hasn’t always reflected that.
Along with their mindfulness coach, the team’s deep roster has been a major factor leading to the team’s success this season. More players were playing a full 90 minutes in previous seasons, Ford said, but now a variety of players are getting in the game and being able to contribute. So far this season, 10 different players have scored at least one goal.
“It’s the deepest team we’ve ever had,” Burke said. “It’s a lot of players playing with a lot of players contributing.”
With seven players in their fifth year of eligibility, there is a lot of old blood in the team to balance out some of the new faces.
“Experience is our biggest asset,” Burke said.
Older players have tried to ease new players’ transitions onto the team too, Burke says. Having been on teams before where older players aren’t as approachable, Kelly said, now she does her best to make conversations and joke around with younger players.
“Just because I’m the head coach doesn’t mean I can be untouchable to these players,” Burke said. “We have to have that balance and trust. I think that’s unique to our team.”
When situations arise that call for difficult conversations, Burke hopes he has helped cultivate an environment of respect and care so it is easier to have hard conversations. Making sure everyone on the team is approachable has helped with communication among the team and led to this team’s success on the field, he says.
“We’ve had a lot of success from our freshmen,” Burke said. “I think that’s a big product of the environment that’s created here. They feel comfortable.”
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